I was 16, in my second-last year of high school in Etobicoke, a western suburb of Toronto. It was the final class of the day – Mr. Relf’s Chemistry. I was sitting at a lab table in the back right corner of the room with my desk partner, Barbara Vaughan-Parks. The principal, Mr. Evanson, began the school announcements over the PA system. It was 3:15. “It is with regret that I announce the assassination of President John Kennedy,” he said. Barbara Vaughan-Parks, shy and reserved, began to sob.
For me at the time, this was different from every other event in history. I was there. I knew about Lee Harvey Oswald from almost the moment the police knew about him. I knew about his time in Russia, about Marina, about Officer Tippett. I saw Jack Ruby shoot him at the same moment J. Edgar Hoover and the Queen of England saw him do it. I saw John-John, too young to know, and Caroline, not quite too young not to know something. I saw the slow, sad pace of the funeral cortege; I heard the mournful sound of the horses’ hooves. I heard people give meaning to the events as they were finding that meaning themselves. I saw Jackie Kennedy’s grief as she felt it. I saw Lyndon Johnson be the president he needed to be.
I’ve watched many TV shows in recent days that commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. I had been too young earlier to know just how young he and Jackie were. How good looking. His face, at one moment intent, then a smile so stunningly bright; his hair, thick like muscle fibers, sweeping over his head. He played touch football, swam, sailed, golfed – never mind his bad back and Addison’s Disease. He did what brothers do with brothers and sisters; what fathers do with kids. The way he jabbed the air with his forefinger when he spoke. His sheer physicality. Everything, as his impressionists had him say at the time, done with “vig-uh.” Even the way he said “vig-uh.”
The images with his family. His father, Joe, looks different to me now. He was rich and ambitious. He may have fixed elections for his son. But he was determined the Kennedy line didn’t begin and wouldn’t end with him. He wouldn’t make himself the star. He would groom his children, especially his sons. The best was yet to come. It had to be. That would be Joe Jr., until he was killed in the Second World War; then it would be Jack. The kids were all born on third base, but to get home they would have to compete against each other and up to the family’s expectations for them. And the last ninety feet for him, for all of them, would be the hardest. The kids were privileged, but when Jack ran for Congress in Massachusetts, then for Senator, then for President, having run the gauntlet of his family, he was tested. It was there to see on that TV screen. I hadn’t noticed it before.
Also on the screen was Walter Cronkite. His hair slicked back, his moustache, his black, thick-rimmed glasses; the crackling gravel of his voice. His announcement of Kennedy’s death. Other newscasters on other networks gave the grim news, but Cronkite made what was real, official – “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” Since I was 16, the images I had seen of this moment had all ended here. Some of these shows stayed with the Cronkite clip. In it, he takes his glasses off, puts them on, looks up at a clock, pauses until he tries to say something about Vice President Johnson, his voice thickens, his lips quiver, nothing he can say matters. Having made the news official, he had made the grief official too.
It was a shock to see the violence of Kennedy’s death. I had watched the Zapruder film many times. I remember Kennedy slumping slightly to one side when hit with the first bullet. I remember Jackie leaping prone onto the trunk of the open-roof car, reaching desperately toward a Secret Service agent on a motorcycle behind. I didn’t remember the sudden red cloud that sprayed from Kennedy’s head, the lurch of his body, as he was hit by the second shot. How at that moment, for anyone who had seen it, all hope was gone.
It was fascinating and moving – something that felt both distant and close – to watch the pivotal moments of his term: his inauguration speech in the January cold of Washington. Its still-echoing phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” a little self-aware and forced, except to all those Americans who felt the same, then and now. The Bay of Pigs, the eyeball-to-eyeball showdown with Nikita Khrushchev over the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the civil rights skirmishes, the promise to send a man to the moon, and bring him back safely, by the end of the decade. Vietnam. But above all, what comes through in every image, of actions taken, or of simply his being, is a spirit – of hope, optimism, possibility.
Reality may seem something objective and measurable. It is instead a mix of how things are, and what, it seems, they will be. Other presidents delivered more; none offered a better, more seemingly possible tomorrow. The reality of Kennedy, to those who lived through his years, is greater than the prose of history. No matter his failures and the mire of politics, Kennedy died with his promise intact.
With his death, the shows all talked of the loss of innocence, the end of Camelot. What followed in the 1960s were more assassinations – Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King – race riots, protests, marches. Vietnam. Ralph Nader uncovered corporate and government injustice. Soon ahead was Watergate. The optimism of youth had been replaced by the disappointment of middle age. The U.S. would never be young again.
Looking around today, who can argue. The screaming mess of politics; the irresistible more – for a few; the unavoidable less – for most; a powerless reality – for all. The faces on that screen from fifty years ago, the words they say, don’t belong. It’s over. It’s gone.
But it isn’t. Nor was it ever. For 16 year olds or 25 year olds of the time the events were tragic and sad, but they didn’t stop us from being 16 or 25. We were never not hopeful or optimistic. The future was always a place of possibility. These were our lives. Riots, protests, muckraking books expose the bad, but they also express a desperation to do better. A deep down belief that better is possible. Or else why do them? Hope, optimism, possibility did not die in Dallas in 1963. They are within every 16 and 25 year old, as they always have been, as they always will be. It is in the nature of youth, that always “more congenial spot” which Camelot refers to. They remain too in those older, just as they did in the Kennedy years, that he brought out. They remain in people ready to suspend their beaten down reality, wanting to hope. Looking for a way.
Ken Dryden is a former NHL goaltender, and is a lawyer, author and former member of Parliament.